I was surprised when a friend related this incident. Her cousin in Boston was fundraising for a cause, a calamity that had left her feeling very unhappy. When she asked her friends, a Hindu couple, for a donation, they demurred. My friend doesn’t know the details, but the gist of their reasoning was: “Giving out of pity is not charity – you’re only doing this to make yourself feel better!” So when my friend indignantly asked me, “Who on earth says that?” I was inclined to agree with her.
I had never heard this before. Or, had I? A forgotten memory suddenly popped into my mind with surprising clarity. I might’ve been seven or eight when I was walking with my mother and I said “paapa”, an expression of pity, when we passed a woman in tattered clothes begging on the pavement. My mother dropped a few coins into the woman’s outstretched palm. Then she told me we must never say “paapa” and pity people because it means we think we are better than them. God has put them there and it is not our job to judge God. But we have to help them because God expects us to. Though my parents never spoke about compassion it was often obvious in their interactions with people. I was too young to understand the difference between pity and compassion and didn’t dwell on it. Until now that is, when my friend directly asked me if such a belief existed in Hinduism.
The tradition of giving exists in every religion. Giving ‘daana’, or alms, is encouraged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver but warns, “when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”. Charity is an integral part of being Parsi. In Islam, zakat is obligatory and people are expected to donate a certain percentage of their wealth to charity, but are not penalized if they don’t, perhaps to keep the offering pure. Religions in general seem to agree that what you give has to be selfless. It has to arise from empathy and compassion and can’t be a tax write-off!
I asked a couple of Hindu friends from other parts of India if anyone had told them something like this growing up. To my surprise one said that she had been told “paavam sholl-kudaadhu” (in Tamil) when she commented on poor people on the streets of Tanjavur. The other, a Gujarati from Bombay, said “nobody said this to me, but nobody ever said ‘bechara’ (in Hindi) either. We gave to charity in different ways, but it was as a duty…”
The Bhagavad Gita says: charity given to a worthy person simply because it is right to give, without consideration of anything in return, at the proper time and in the proper place, is stated to be in the mode of goodness.
Is philanthropy the same thing? The modern definition of philanthropy is ‘private initiatives for the public good, focusing on quality of life’. And the rules are different. Publicity is a necessity. Soliciting to raise funds is all right. It’s okay to donate to charities to have your taxes reduced while filing returns. According to some, charities should be for-profit organizations and be run like businesses, efficiently, so that money is not squandered. In celebrity philanthropy the celeb’s brand is the pivot. These are all new developments and I find it hard to square them with the traditional approach to charity. But I guess this is the only way bigger set-ups can use philanthropy for something large-scale, like Akshaya Patra here in Bangalore.
Still, people who want to donate a little to a cause as a duty can give without patronizing the people they are giving to, without expecting to gain anything in return, and the left hand doesn’t have to know. Equally, people can give because they feel sorry when they see suffering and feel good about doing their bit.
Since I don’t know the people my friend talked about I don’t want to judge them. Maybe they didn’t believe in the cause, or maybe they were on a tight budget. A religious directive might have consciously or subconsciously come into play. Or they might have deliberately interpreted it to their advantage. Small actions often have complex drivers as I’ve observed frequently in clinical work.
When it comes to holy books, it’s all about interpretation. Religious texts can be misinterpreted. Regardless, most regular folks have a natural urge to help the less fortunate, and they do, even atheists. Maybe being helpful is more a human attribute than a religious one.